We hear too few success stories in education these days. Especially in urban education, where superintendents have engaged in "extreme makeovers" -- firing all the teachers, splitting schools into smaller schools, creating charter schools, and re-formatting schools -- a little-regarded value has gone unnoticed. I call it love.
Eighteen years ago, in 1994, my wife Susan and I felt that love could turn around negative schools by empowering students with the concept that love was a choice that they could use to build positive self-esteem in themselves and others. We created a character-development education and training organization called Project Love Remember the Children Foundation. Educators initially rolled their eyes. Business leaders, to whom I went for money, thought that I had flipped out. The biggest foundations in Cleveland graciously suggested that we change the name.
I declined. I felt that this was a missing link in restoring schools to civility, tolerance and, yes, love. The problem that we have with the word love was and still is symptomatic of a deeper problem in American society -- we're getting meaner, more in-your-face, more disrespectful and more violent. Only recently have people become aware of the epidemic of bullying that has occurred in our schools and workplaces -- 160,000 students stay home every day because they fear being bullied and 30 million workers are bullied each year -- but this decline in decency started a few decades ago.
Despite the rolling eyes and negative comments, over the past 18 years, Project Love has trained more than 60,000 teens and 2,300 adults to build cultures of kindness, caring and respect in their schools. I attribute our success to a simple equation of human nature: when people are mean to you, you retaliate; when people are kind, you want to pay it forward. Think back about the teachers you performed the most for, the ones you didn't want to disappoint. Were they mean or kind?
But would this simple formula turn around the most at-risk teens in an urban school affected by violence, poverty and family dysfunction and whose graduation rate was 52 percent?
We got the chance to answer that question four years ago when teachers and a pioneering principal at Cleveland's Collinwood High School asked Project Love to restore learning, dignity, respect and love to 71 of the most at-risk ninth-grade girls. These girls were selected based on absenteeism, failing grades, violence, suspensions and all indicating that they would be drop-outs soon.
The program, which we called Believe to Achieve, is based on the fundamental principles of cognitive psychology -- that behavior follows belief. If you believe that someone disrespected you, you might fight them. If you believe that they were having a bad day, you might justify forgiving them. If you believe in love and kindness and their effects on you and others, then you'll be loving and kind. And, finally, after you've negated your toxic environment through love, if you believe that you have a mission in life you will achieve it.
Most education starts out with questions about how much you know. Our program starts out with questions about what you stand for and your life purpose. Who you are is even more important than what you learn, because who you are determines what you choose to learn.
But success also depends on environment. These girls had to care for siblings, nurse their parents' dysfunctions, drug abuse, alcoholism, poverty, violence, domestic abuse, the list continues. Some of the girls were thrown out of their houses where they had to fend for themselves on the streets.
Our program taught them that they were in charge of their reality. However daunting, their world didn't have to be their reality unless they bought into it. And if they bought into that world of hopelessness and despair they would become hopeless and desperate.
We wanted these girls to thrive. Hopelessness doesn't encourage success. It drags you down. Given their environment, we knew that we also had to give love to these girls. We did that through a retired teacher, Julie Wynn-Martin, who became our Project Love facilitator one day every week of the school year. She not only worked the curriculum modules that we called "Winning at the Game of Life," she became the love -- modeling how to treat people, how to live, how to forgive and how to love unconditionally. Once the girls sincerely believed that they were being given love, they wanted to give it to others. After just three months of the program, they developed a domestic violence prevention program for the entire school. They became leaders.
As you might suspect, this story ends well. Two weeks ago, 71 percent of the girls walked across the stage, high school diploma in hand. Another seven have completed their course work but still have to complete their Ohio Graduation Test. Total to have completed the 12th grade: 81 percent. Many are going to college. Of the top 11 academic performers in the school, nine were from this group.
Gandhi once said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." I think he was referring to the power of belief and the power of love. The girls of Project Love's Believe to Achieve Collinwood High School Class of 2012 proved that they could indeed be the change.
I'm proud of these girls. They've made a difference in their school and they represent the power of the possible for America's schools and for our country. Some skeptics will still brand love too esoteric to be a solution, but I call it a simple, practical and elegant solution.
Follow Stuart Muszynski on Twitter: www.twitter.com/purpleamericaus